Aidan Walker talks trains, boats and planes with Paul Priestman, half of the highly successful Priestmangoode that has brought a new type of thinking to design
I've always been interested in Big Things, says Paul Priestman beguilingly, having just tried to communicate the excitement and pride he felt when one of the first examples of a high-speed train his consultancy is designing in China rolled out of the shed and on to the line - all 400m of it. A 90-minute conversation with Priestman at Priestmangoode's central London studio turns almost exclusively on his and his partner Nigel Goode's 'Big Things' - trains, planes and even cruise ships - but it covers a lot of ground and draws us into insights into the client/manufacturer/designer relationship, into infrastructure, into engineering, into the branding of nations via their transport systems, and a whole raft of other big things besides.
Before we get stuck into trains, boats and planes it's also worth remembering that Priestman is responsible for a number of extremely small things, not least the Waterpebble, a simple and seductive little object that sits in the shower plug hole and lights up to tell you when to get out of the shower. Using your first shower as a benchmark, it incrementally reduces your shower time each day until you reach three minutes. It's a neat and pleasing object with t he innate charm and humanity that sets good design apart, and that, I think it's fair to say, distinguishes the work of Priestmangoode when it is working on very big things indeed.
If there is a design consultancy in the world that has done as much work on aircraft and airlines as Priestmangoode, then I don't know about it, and it's probable that it would have become abundantly clear during the preparation of this article that the consultancy has some serious competitors. But they are conspicuous by their absence.
Priestmangoode has worked and is working with, among others, TAM Airlines of Brazil, Malaysia Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, SWISS, Kingfisher, Jet Airways, Qatar Airways, and of course Virgin Airlines, for which it produced the first-ever angled lie-flat bed more than 10 years ago. This innovative design enabled the airline to keep a maximum number of seats while enhancing passenger comfort. It's not only the carriers, either; Priestmangoode has been closely involved with Airbus and the development of the A380.
Priestman shows me the images of the new TAM first-class seating, released only a week before our conversation. My jaw drops. 'But Paul, this looks just like someone's living room....' (Well, not exactly like, but a lot closer than you would expect in an aeroplane.) 'Yes, it's the result of four years' work - a radical solution. Basically we are placing furniture within an aircraft rather than integrating it into the structure.'
'Is this the holy grail for aircraft interior design?' I ask - 'that the seats should look like furniture?' 'I think so,' replies Priestman, whose studio proposed similar solutions for Lufthansa, SWISS and Malaysia Airlines. 'We don't want big plastic mouldings, big, horrible, floppy objects. It comes down to the users' interaction with their physical environment. Any branding is what you see plus what you touch.' And this leads us straight to the key element of much of the consultancy's work with both airlines and trains - big transport projects like this are branding incarnate. 'All our airline work is about the branding of nations,' says Priestman.
It's also a peculiarly telling comment on the notion of the consumer and consumerism; Priestman and his team design objects that will be used by more consumers than a consumer-focused company like Apple could ever dream of, and over many generations - they design trains that must last 60 years. But they are not 'consumer objects' in the sense of the word that you and I know; they serve a anti-consumerist agenda, in that longevity and absolute engineering solidity and reliability are at the very top of the agenda. You don't swap out last year's train for a new one every year, nor do you allow even the tiniest compromise on quality of components.
This point takes us back to aircraft, which must take the passenger from home to destination, and which at every touch point must feel just right. Every minute detail must be impeccable. 'We don't do one-offs. All our product is mass-produced,' says Priestman. 'The construction industry allows for an assortment of tolerances. Our manufacturing allows for nothing. Zero mm.'
The first-class cabin teaspoons must have (almost) as much attention paid to them as the seat, the interior environment, the airframe itself. 'See that little hinge? If it breaks, the aircraft can't take off, which is hardly going to please the airline, never mind the passenger. If you're paying $6,000 for a trip, you don't want to see a chip off the laminate. Everything has to be as good as your Maybach - it has to work. No ifs or buts.' Plus the design thinking covers the 'whole experience': 'When you're designing for aircraft, you try to create something unique within the experience. You have to think about service in first or business class. You work out what service is offered and design the environment to make it easy for that service to be delivered by staff. They are bringing you a cup of coffee; you have to make sure there's a place for them to put it down. You're making life easy for both user and operator.'
Which leads us to a typical Priestmangoode innovation for aircraft, a product of the same type of thinking that gave us the Waterpebble, and that you can see bubbling up in the Priestman psyche when he asks: ' Why does your arm have to get wet when you turn on the shower?' Few able-bodied people know anything about the airline experience of the disabled, because they are always seated in the plane first, before everyone else walks on. What you haven't seen is the awkward and humiliating process of two people in high-vis vests literally lifting wheelchair-bound people from their chair to the seat where they are likely to be confined for the entire flight, given that they have to call for help to get to the lavatory. Train manufacturers are statutorily obliged to provide disabled toilets; aircraft makers are not. Priestmangoode came up with one of those ideas that make you go 'Why did no one think of that before?'
Essentially what it calls 'Air Access' is an aircraft seat with an integrated detachable lightweight wheelchair. Priestman came up with the idea following a meeting with David Constantine, designer and director of Motivation, a charity that provides support around the world for people with mobility difficulties. Priestman explains: 'David and I have known each other for many years. He himself is a wheelchair user and was relating to me his experiences of air travel. It brought to light that while there is continued advancement and innovation in able-bodied passenger experience, very little thought is given to the experience of passengers with reduced mobility.'
Air Access enables passengers to settle into their seat in the terminal where there is space and time to manoeuvre. They are then wheeled on to the plane, where the same chair locks into the main seat frame and becomes a standard airline seat.
'It's interesting when you can have an idea and get people to think, "Yes, there is a different way of doing something",' says Priestman. 'The airline industry has been in denial, it hasn't thought about it - all it knows is that disabled passengers are hard to handle, and can compromise crucial turnround time.'
We could keep going. We could talk about how a designer working on projects of this size and social significance has to start thinking about infrastructure and projecting his 60-year-life trains into a future which know one can really know. We do know that designers like Priestman pay a great deal of attention to demographic trends, looking at the way cities are developing and seeing that the high-speed rail infrastructure that most urban centres are investing in is being built on the outskirts. But we need to keep moving, and most of the world's great cities are at or close to automotive gridlock. The solution? 'Moving platforms', says Priestman; essentially a docking system for local commuter trains to connect with the national and international high-speed variety without having to stop. Similarly, most of the design for transport by Priestmangoode has sustainability deep laid in its creative DNA. 'Although we work in aviation,' says Priestman, 'if I can persuade...people to use trains instead of their cars, then we are making the right kind of difference.'
That mind-boggling matter of scale again. And why not reuse the heat that these enormous vehicles generate to heat their interiors, even reusing it for their own energy demands? And make them lighter. Less weight means less energy consumed. Back to aircraft: 'Always try to reduce weight. The idea of flying glass bottles back and forth is madness. Inflight entertainment is immensely expensive, and all those magazines weigh a tonne. Now that we're all digital, everyone has their own screen and their own content. Why not just hand out iPads before take-off and take them back as people get off?' Last word: 'If it's not designers thinking about this sort of thing, who is?
This article was first published in fx Magazine.